Silicon Valley’s biggest executives went to Washington this week to talk shop with lawmakers as artificial intelligence and its regulation take on an urgent focus on the Hill.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) invited some of the most prominent figures in tech—Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and OpenAI CEO Sam Altman—for an event he billed as a critical initial step in drafting future AI legislation. The three-hour closed-door meeting Wednesday focused primarily on future AI regulations, attendees told reporters.
The use of artificial intelligence is an increasingly urgent issue for policymakers as the technology, popularized by free tools like ChatGPT, threatens to displace millions of workers, destabilize elections, and make billions for companies that successfully harness it. The emerging technology remains poorly understood, making technical expertise critical in outlining possible regulations. But some senators slammed tech companies’ prominent role in the process.
“This is the biggest gathering of monopolists since the Gilded Age, and I’m disappointed it isn’t happening in public and not in a real hearing,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) told the New York Times. Hawley, a vocal critic of big tech, made similar claims in his book The Tyranny of Big Tech, which accused the industry’s biggest companies of operating like “robber barons.” (When reached for comment, Hawley’s press secretary pointed Fortune to previous public comments in which he suggested AI could lead to censorship, election interference, and have adverse effects on children.)
Hawley has proposed multiple AI-focused bills this week. On Tuesday, along with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), he introduced a proposal to regulate AI that includes privacy and licensing requirements and penalties for violating civil rights, and creates a new federal agency that would oversee AI, according to a press release. On Wednesday, the day of the closed-door confab, Hawley introduced a bill banning the use of “materially deceptive” AI-generated content in political ads.
Hawley expressed reservations that the companies that created AI could play a significant role in regulating it. “The idea that it is some great breakthrough to hear from the biggest monopolists in the world—and that they are going to share with us their great wisdom—I just think the whole framework is wrong,” he said, according to NBC.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) likewise criticized the meeting’s private nature, saying, “I do not understand why the press has been barred from this meeting.” She told Axios that Big Tech was getting “special treatment” by being shielded from the public eye. “All of the senators are sitting there, and ask no questions, that’s what’s happening,” Warren said.
Schumer defended the decision by citing the need to hear from experts in a highly technical and scientific field. He likened the process to the one used last August to create the CHIPS and Science Act, which provided around $280 billion in funding to increase U.S. semiconductor manufacturing. The Senate majority leader has repeatedly called on Congress to move quickly in regulating AI.
While tech leaders agreed that AI regulation is necessary, they offered reporters differing views on what it would look like.
Their recommendations largely tracked with their companies’ interests. Zuckerberg touted the importance of keeping AI open-source. “Open source democratizes access to these tools, and that helps level the playing field and foster innovation for people and businesses,” Zuckerberg said. Meta made its Llama 2 large language model free to the public in July.
Musk, who in July announced his own AI firm, xAI, stuck to his habit of framing technological innovation in broad, existential terms. “There’s some chance—above zero—that AI will kill us all,” he said, according to CNN, adding that the meeting “may go down in history as being very important for the future of civilization.” And Bill Gates, who founded one of the world’s biggest charities, reportedly emphasized AI’s ability to help solve humanitarian issues, like world hunger.
The gathering is the latest development after months of Senate hearings amid growing public angst surrounding AI, ever since ChatGPT thrust it into the public consciousness. In May, Altman, who leads ChatGPT maker OpenAI, testified before Congress. During that hearing he surprised some observers by openly calling for regulation on AI, calling it “essential.” In July, Microsoft, Alphabet, OpenAI, and Anthropic—several of the most high-profile AI companies—formed the Frontier Model Forum, a trade organization to discuss and craft AI legislation.
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